Aiming for Gold 

On the trail in \nWest Yellowstone\nwith America’s\nOlympic biathlon hopefuls

It’s a close cousin to an ice rink warming hut, this small cabin perched above the shooting range at the Rendezvous ski trail just outside of West Yellowstone, Mont. And there’s good reason to be in the cabin on this particular morning, as it’s been snowing with a bitter, sideways vengeance for the last two hours I’ve been sitting at the window, watching top Russian and U.S. biathletes fine-tune their skills in preparation for the Salt Lake City Olympics just a few weeks away.

But as soon as Algis Shalna, the Lithuanian-born head coach of the U.S. team, finishes the practice session with a few pointers to biathlete Dan Campbell, I bolt outside and approach Campbell for a pre-arranged lesson of my own. I’ve just seen him and three other members of the U.S. team in West Yellowstone–Kristina Sabasteanski, Jay Hakkinen and Rachel Steer–struggle mightily against the wind and snow in their efforts to peg the small black targets fifty meters away, and I’m eager to find out if I can put a .22 caliber slug in the same zip code as the bull’s-eye.

After some quick pointers from Campbell, I take the prone position and peer through the rear “peep sight” on the rifle. The initial prognosis of my ability is not good, as it takes me a while to even find the front sight, a small metal circle at the end of the barrel. Once I do find it, the damned thing will not quit moving. After a few deep breaths, I re-sight and find the leftmost of five horizontal targets. I squeeze the trigger, and ping! the black target falls and is replaced by a white cover, indicating a hit.

I smile proudly at assistant coach and team physiologist Randy Hill, who just shakes his head and smiles sadly. He reminds me that I’ve just taken at least three times as much time for one shot that his charges need for an entire round. He also reminds me that I’m shooting the big targets—if you can call 115 millimeters big—from the position reserved for the small targets (45 mm). He reminds me that I also haven’t just skied three kilometers at breakneck speed. I quicken my pace and miss the next four targets, off by a country mile.

To get a real sense of the event, I challenge Steer to a race around the small loop behind the range. She agrees and skates away effortlessly, and I follow in a clumsy approximation of her stride. By the time we get to the last turn leading back to the range, we’ve traveled all of several hundred yards and I’m puffing like a beached blowfish. She graciously slows up and explains that this is where a biathlete needs to find a center, to slow the breathing and prepare for the shooting. I nod, slow to a walk-stride and approach the shooting mat.

I can hear the blood in my ears and feel my chest heaving as I raise the rifle to my shoulder and look down the sight. Whereas before I struggled to hold firm on a target, now I am merely trying to keep the sight on the huge board that supports them. I take a few more breaths and pull the trigger, the sound of my shot followed by nothing but silence. “I don’t believe you hit the board,” says Randy. I tell him it’s a good thing the Russians have gone home.

I have come to this odd, snow-packed little town to find out two things: 1) How in God’s name does a red-blooded American boy or girl become a biathlete, and 2) why is this one of only three winter Olympic events in which an American has never medaled?

Olympic hunter/warriors

The four U.S. Olympians I spoke with wanted it made clear that the word “biathlete” does not refer to an athlete who, well…goes both ways. “My mom loves to play that one up,” says Steer, her lively blue eyes rolling up in her head. “But that joke gets a little old.”

“Biathlon” is a derivative of a Greek word meaning “two contests;” in this case, skiing and shooting. Northern Europeans have combined the disciplines for centuries, both as a means of gathering food and waging war. The first known biathlon competition took place in Norway sometime in the mid-1700s, and the first Olympic competitions, which remain the pinnacle of biathlon achievement, were held in Squaw Valley, Calif. in 1960.

Although events range from the 7.5-kilometer women’s sprint to the men’s 20k individual to the 30k four-person relay, the basic formula of biathlon remains consistent. Contestants begin by skiing hard for three kilometers, gliding into the shooting range and attempting to hit five targets, either from a prone or standing position. This process is repeated either twice or four times, depending upon the length of the race. Missed shots are crucial mistakes, resulting in either a time penalty or a penalty loop, a short round the skiers must complete for every missed shot. The winner of the race is the competitor with the lowest net time.

By all accounts, the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics were a low point for the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA), the national body that governs the sport. “Lillehammer was…rough for U.S. biathlon,” says coach Hill. “Without being too harsh, the athlete base wasn’t very solid, there was no depth.” Frustrated by the continued dominance of the Russians, Germans, and Scandinavians, USBA decided that it had to abandon its emphasis on developing converting mature athletes and instead focus on developing younger ones.

“[USBA] decided to go after biathletes from the cradle to the grave,” Hill says. “They want them to start off as biathletes and finish as biathletes, instead of trying to convert cross-country skiers into biathletes.”

The image of biathletes as second-rate cross-country skiers is one the organization is working hard to conquer. “Even now biathlon has a bad reputation with cross-country skiers, like it’s where they get sent if they don’t make the cut,” says Hill. “That, of course, is not the reality of the situation. The competitiveness of the sport is now such that you have to excel at both skiing and shooting.”

Following Lillehammer, USBA sent out representatives to the states that had high school biathlon programs in Alaska, the upper Midwest, and the Northeast, hoping to generate enthusiasm for the sport while also seeking a young boy or girl who might become the first American Olympic medallist in 2002.

“They’ve taken a pretty aggressive approach since ’94,” says Hill of the USBA, “and it shows in this year’s team, where at least half of them came from that recruiting program.” Hill notes that two junior biathletes, who just missed making the Olympic team this year, are perhaps the finest pure talents USBA has ever seen.

Hill has been integral to the USBA’s talent identification efforts. A former college cross-country skier who went to Northern Michigan University for a master’s degree in physiology, he quickly found himself crossing over into the world of biathlon racing.

“I became the assistant coach for the U.S. development team for cross-country at the Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan,” he says. “I did that for a year and USBA recruited me to be a biathlon coach.”

Hill went on to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to pursue a Ph.D. in exercise physiology, where he completed the coursework and began his dissertation entitled, appropriately enough, “The Physical and Visual Predictors of Biathlon Performance.”

“What my research has found is that there are three key elements in predicting good biathletes,” he says. “The first is aerobic capacity, which we call VO2, or ventilation-oxygen intake. The second is upper body strength, because although 70 percent of movement power comes from the lower body, 60 to 65 percent of forward momentum comes from the upper body. The third is contrast sensitivity, which is a visual skill. If you’ve ever been alpine skiing on a snowy day, and everything looks flat, that’s called low-contrast conditions. A person with low-contrast sensitivity can see better in low-contrast conditions.”

Despite the USBA’s efforts to establish an infrastructure for the development of athletes, the United States has a long way to go to equal its European counterparts, which often establish state-funded academies that nurture and train young athletes from a tender age. Part of the discrepancy, of course, is the sport’s relative obscurity in this country. Hill says that biathlon is the most popular winter sport on European television, and that races there attract crowds that dwarf the handful of American biathlon fans.

“We were just at a World Cup race in Germany, and there were 25,000 spectators on the course and shooting range, and well over a million watching on TV,” he says. “By contrast, at a World Cup biathlon in Lake Placid last year, there were 20 people watching.”

The cultural importance Europeans place on the sport provides a big incentive for the athletes, says Hill, citing the German men’s team as an example. “They’re four men, ages 30 to 34, and they’re making a great living,” he says. “Hell, they drive brand new Mercedes [a German biathlon team sponsor] every year.”

The overall prominence of European winter sports spills over to other disciplines, and Hill points to snowboarding as a case in point. “The U.S. team was absolutely dominant in Nagano [’98 Winter Games], because the sport originated here,” he says. “But look at the last World Cup race. I think the top two American finishers were something like 35th and 48th place. [No American is currently in the top three of any of World Cup snowboarding’s five disciplines]. The Europeans have simply applied their system to it, and they’ve turned the tables in four years. It’s amazing. They just take it much more seriously.”

The four U.S. biathletes arrived in West Yellowstone on Jan. 22, fresh off the second of two World Cup events held last month in Europe. They came here to tune up for the races at Soldier Hollow, the venue outside of Salt Lake City that will host all biathlon events. The reason these four–half the U.S. team of four men and four women–are here is that they were determined to be “non-responders” to high-altitude training. In other words, they gained no benefit from training at Daniel’s Summit, an 8,000-foot venue above Soldier Hollow where the rest of the team is training.

USBA chose West Yellowstone as a training site for several reasons. The altitude at West is roughly 6,500 feet, comparable to Soldier Hollow’s 5,500 feet. The facilities are well-known to the team, as they train here every November for the early snow conditions. And with the Russian, Czech, and Norwegian teams also training here, the coaches felt the competitive environment was optimal.

Case study in perseverance

At 32, Kristina Sabasteanski is the matriarch of the U.S. team. She’s a case study in perseverance, as her road to the Olympics was a long and rocky one. She started skiing as a high school freshman in Vermont, and when her older brother participated in a biathlon competition held by the National Guard, she was hooked. It was not a desire she could easily satisfy, however.

Sabasteanski contacted the USBA at the age of 17, wondering how she could get involved in the sport and was told that that there were no programs for juniors. Undaunted, she went to Castleton State College in Vermont after hearing that several members of the U.S. junior team were there. Upon her arrival, she found no biathletes. The following year, however, four members of the team showed up, and Sabasteanski jumped in the fray and made the World University Games team that competed in Bulgaria in the winter of 1988-89.

Her auspicious beginning was cut short by a fractured knee suffered during a playful water fight. The injury took more than a year to heal, and following her recovery she tried out for—but failed to make—the U.S. team for the ’92 Olympics. Still, she moved to Lake Placid and trained constantly, waiting tables and then joining the National Guard for income. At the national trials for the ’94 Games, she missed making the team by a heartbreaking 0.6 of a point.

In 1995 Sabasteanski joined the Army as a member of the Army World Class Athlete Program, representing the Army but training with the highest caliber team possible. She made the U.S. National team in 1995, and became one of the top women on the team. Riding that momentum into the trials for the ’98 games, Sabasteanski performed poorly in the first three of the four determining races, due in part to uncooperative skis. “I didn’t have the right stone-grind for the conditions,” she says, referring to the highly technical groove patterns cut into the bottom of the racers’ skis.

Before the fourth race, she calculated that she would have to “clean” the shooting segment–biathlon parlance for hitting every target–and beat her competitors by 52 seconds to make the team. Still struggling with sluggish skis, she sent a friend out to test her 11th and final pair. The friend came back bursting with excitement. “It was a miracle,” says Sabasteanski. “That last pair of skis were rockets.”

She cleaned the shooting round and beat the next closest competitor by more than a minute. At Nagano, she was the top American in any individual biathlon event, finishing 33rd in the 7.5k sprint.

The quirky Alaskan

Jay Hakkinen, the 24-year old quirky Alaskan who burst onto the scene in 1997 as a junior world champion (the first and only American to capture that title), has yet to cash in that early promise on the senior tour. “The World Juniors are one thing, but trying to figure out how to win World Cup and Olympic races is a totally different ball game,” he says. “It’s kind of embarrassing, actually, because I haven’t done anything since. I need to move forward.”

Hakkinen understates his achievements, however. As a three-time top-ten finisher in World Cup races, he remains one of the most respected members of the U.S. team. The past year has been a difficult one for him in competition, and the key for him is refining his shooting techniques. “I’m not really looking at results at this point. I’m trying to get back into the shape and the shooting mentality that I know I can compete at,” he says. “I know if I’m in good skiing shape I can compete with just about anybody. And I know if I can do the shooting I do in training, I’ll compete well.”.

Mellow or not, Hakkinen possesses a biting wit, a trait that endears him to his fellow team members. When asked if he ever gets the urge to shoot the competitors in front of him, Hakkinen riffs on the idea. “Hey, that would actually be a good idea. The relay would be the best time, though, because everybody is lined up at the start. You could see how many you could get with one shot. They’re pretty skinny, you know. I bet you could get maybe five or ten with one bullet.”

When it comes to the combination of mind and body discipline required of a biathlete, Hakkinen is dead serious. “Skiing is, arguably, one of the hardest physical sports there is,” he says. “Shooting is, I think, the hardest mental sport there is. One uses every muscle you have, the other doesn’t use a single muscle. It’s not just parts, it’s everything.”

The Minnesota dark horse

Dan Campbell, the 23-year-old dark horse of the American team, is the relative unknown from Minnesota who surprised everybody, including himself, by qualifying for the team at the U.S. trials in late December.

A high-school skier, Campbell joined the biathlon fray when a ski camp he attended after his junior year featured an introduction to the sport. He got invited to another camp, went to Northern Michigan University to pursue the sport, and made the World Junior team in 1997 and ’98.

After he turned 20, the cutoff age for the junior team, Campbell couldn’t make the senior team. He was placed on a “bridging” team–“basically they’re trying to keep you from quitting,” he says—and moved to Park City, Utah in 1998. When the bridging team dissolved around him after a couple of years, he found himself at the bottom of the barrel.

“I was working as a baker in a bagel shop, trying to train, and trying to go to school,” he says. “I wasn’t getting any better. I was just getting by, living in my truck behind the bagel shop.”

Campbell had thoughts of giving up, he says, when an old coach from Minnesota invited him to join a training group he was forming. He moved back with his parents, and his training progressed under the one-on-one format he had been previously lacked. His skiing, already a strong point, improved dramatically, and he and his coach broke down and then rebuilt his entire shooting routine.

After training with the group for a year, Campbell’s skills gelled at the right time. At the Olympic trials, he was squarely in contention after the first two races. His third race, however, was a disaster. After hitting 14 of the first 15 targets, Campbell whiffed on four of the last five, dropping him down to eighth place. “That second to last day was tough,” he says. “I though I had lost my chance, and I was pretty upset with myself. I knew I had to change my state of mind if I had a chance.”

He recovered by hitting 8 of ten targets on the final day, and skied himself back into fourth place and a spot on the team.

If Sabasteanski, Hakkinen and Campbell represent the spirit, potential and underdog toughness of the U.S. biathlon team, respectively, then 24-year old Rachel Steer is its spunk. An ebullient redhead with sparkling eyes and a quick smile, Steer began biathlon training before high school, when an older brother joined the Alaska biathlon club. She and a friend went to the junior nationals at age 15, and from there she made the junior national team and spent much of her high school years traveling and competing in Europe.

“When you wonder how someone gets into this, a big part of it is you take a lucky kid like me, take me over to Europe one time, and it’s contagious,” she says. “If you have the right kind of kid with the right kind of attitude, they’re going to carry on that energy and excitement through the obscurity in America.”

After graduating high school in 1996, Steer went to the University of Vermont so she could train with the junior national coach at the nearby biathlon venue in Jericho. “It’s also where the Mountain Warfare School is,” says Steer. “So it was a bunch of us, and then a bunch of burly dudes in camo. You’d be running around in the trees and you’d stop to go pee and you’d have to take a closer look because you know there’s some guy in the trees.”

Steer’s physical appearance has earned her something of a following on the World Cup circuit, although she feels it’s a bit misplaced. “I’ve been around the circuit for a quite a few years now and with red hair and big boobs, you don’t get missed,” she laughs. “I’m not fooling myself. My results are not what’s catching their eyes, although I wish they were.”

For all her modesty, Steer is clearly one of the top threats from the U.S. team. She’s the reigning senior women’s champion and as good a bet as any to break the American drought at top-ten Olympic finishes.

Because of her struggles at the most recent World Cup races, Steer doesn’t feel that she’s the top U.S. woman coming into the Games, even though she won the Olympic trials. “I’m not too concerned about it, because I really believe in my coach’s plan,” she says. “But I think Kara [Salmela] and Kris [Sabasteanski] are performing very well right now. I think any of us are capable of getting a great result in any race.”

Despite USBA’s plan to develop medal winners for the 2002 games, most observers regard the chances of that happening as slim at best. Still, this is a compelling team in an exciting event, and the day that sees an American standing alongside the Europeans on a podium maybe not be so far away.

“The Norwegians are very fast skiers, but weak in the range, and the Russians are very good shooters, but sometimes not as good in the skiing,” says Hakkinen. “So everyone has their quirks. But I’ve been close enough to the podium enough times to know that I can get there. It’s very strange how little the difference is between the top 25 and the top ten, little tiny things like staying relaxed for your last shot. They’re not big steps.”

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